Nebraska Target and Signee Star in Metro Holiday Tournament
Photo Credit: Erin Sorensen

Nebraska Target and Signee Star in Metro Holiday Tournament

January 05, 2019

Last season, Omaha Creighton Prep — led by 2019 Nebraska signee Akol Arop — suffered its first loss of the season in the semifinals of the Metro Holiday Tournament, falling to the eventual champion Omaha Central Eagles.

The Junior Jays won the rest of their games that season on their way to a Class A state title, and they won their first nine games of this season too despite losing its four other starters from last year besides Arop. Twenty-seven straight wins spanning a full calendar year.

Bellevue West ended that streak on Friday night, handing the Junior Jays a 51-46 loss in the championship game of the 2018 Metro Holiday Tournament. The Junior Jays were the top seed in the tournament and the Thunderbirds were No. 2, but 2021 Nebraska target Chucky Hepburn led his team to the upset win against the team that they lost to in last year’s Class A state final.

“Obviously it feels great,” Bellevue West coach Doug Woodard said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been able to win this thing and actually it’s been a while since we’ve even been in the finals. Prep’s a great team, a great program. Obviously a super competitive game. It wasn’t pretty on either of our accounts offensively, which you kind of expect this early in the season, playing this many days in a row in a  condensed tournament.”

Hepburn, who had been dealing with an illness earlier in the week, scored 12 of his team-high 18 points in the fourth quarter to carry the Thunderbirds to the win. He grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out four assists and nabbed two steals in the game as well.

“I’m proud of him,” Woodard said. “He’s had a rough time. He was in bed a couple days with one of these viral things going around and he just has not had a ton of burst and energy. But he’s got as many fluids as he canon him, he’s played hard, he hasn’t pouted about it or whined. You could tell he didn’t have his legs a lot of the time on his shot but he found a way to get himself to the free-throw line, finish a couple of difficult plays around the rim. Defensively he was obviously nails like he usually is. So it was big for us.”

Arop was a monster on both ends for the Junior Jays, finishing with 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting, 19 rebounds, three blocks and a steal.

“He’s just so hard to defend,” Woodard said. “He’s as good as has been around here in a long, long time as a basketball player. He just makes it so hard because they have so many guys that can shoot it.”

Bellevue West jumped out to a 13-4 lead early, but Prep closed the gap to four at the end of the quarter with Bellevue West leading 14-10. Arop had nine of Prep’s 11. The Junior Jays doubled-up the Thunderbirds 20-10 in the second quarter to take a 31-24 lead at the half. Arop had a double-double by halftime with 15 and 10.

Hepburn, on the other hand, struggled mightily from the field, shooting just 1-of-7 from the field with four points. Junior forward Louis Fidler picked up the slack with 10 first-half points on 4-of-5 shooting to keep the Thunderbirds in the game.

Bellevue West picked it up on defense in the third quarter, limiting Arop to just two points on two shot attempts, and the other Junior Jays couldn’t take advantage, missing seven of their eight shots. Bellevue West pulled within two at 36-34 at the end of the quarter. 

Fidler knocked down a 3 to open the quarter, then junior guard David Nuor got a steal and took it to the rim for a layup, putting Bellevue West up 39-36. Arop answered with a bucket inside. The two teams went score fro score from that point forward, trading the lead six times. 

Hepburn hit a pair of free throws to give the Thunderbirds a 47-46 lead, and Prep ended the game with three empty possessions. Hepburn hit four more free throws to seal it. He scored Bellevue West’s last 12 points.

“I was drained the whole game, but I just found the energy to keep pushing and I found the energy to be able to make a couple plays down the stretch and hit the free throws,” Hepburn said.

Nebraska coach Tim Miles was seated court side for the game after assistant coach Michael Lewis attended Thursday’s semifinals.

“I’m glad he came down and showed some love to me and Akol,” Hepburn said. “That means a lot.”

The Thunderbirds came from behind to win three of their four tournaments games, blowing put Papillion-La Vista 66-46 in the first round, overcoming a double-digit halftime lead to beat Omaha Bryan 86-78 then bouncing back from a six-point first quarter to beat Papillion-La Vista South 71-58 in the semifinal.

“Well, we showed we could play from behind because we did it all the last three games and stayed composed and fought through some adversity,” Woodard said. “For this group to show they can handle some adversity and not let it derail them or implode is a good step. Also, the fact that we can win a low, grind-it-out, scoring game. That’s not the kind we like to play, but the ability to be competitive in it and prevail, hopefully that bodes well for the future.”

The Junior Jays survived 76-70 in overtime against Omaha Benson in the first round, beat Omaha South 75-68 in the second then smashed Omaha Central in the semifinals. The Eagles shot 16-of-29 from 3 in their quarterfinal win over Millard North and Class A’s leading scorer John Tonje had put up 30 and 29 in his first two Metro games, but the Junior Jays held them to 2-of-16 from 3 and Arop locked Tonje down as the 6-foot-4 wing finished with 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting.

I also wanted to give special mention to a couple of clutch plays. The first round of the tournament saw back-to-back game-winning shots last Saturday.

First, a crazy sequence of go-ahead shots late between Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue East ended with this jumper by junior Jared Mattley for the Titans.

In the next game, Omaha Bryan senior Javen Udofia pulled up for this 3 with the game tied and Elkhorn South failed to score on the other end.

Hail Varsity’s All-Tournament Teams

First Team

» Bellevue West sophomore point guard Chucky Hepburn

16.3 ppg, 38.8% FG (27.8% 3FG), 84.6% FT, 6.3 rpg (1.3 orpg), 5.5 apg, 2.0 tpg, 4.3 spg

» Omaha Creighton Prep senior forward Akol Arop

23.5 ppg, 75.6% FG (25.0% 3FG), 72.2% FT, 10.3 rpg (3.8 orpg), 0.5 apg, 2.8 tpg, 0.5 spg, 3.8 bpg

» Papillion-La Vista South senior forward Lök Wur

26.0 ppg, 61.7% FG (20.0% 3FG), 60.0% FT, 11.3 rpg (2.0 orpg), 2.3 apg, 5.3 tpg, 1.7 spg, 2.7 bpg

» Omaha Central senior wing John Tonje

23.0 ppg, 50.0% FG (30.0% 3FG), 68.8% FT, 8.0 rpg (0.7 orpg), 2.7 apg, 2.7 tpg, 3.0 spg, 0.3 bpg

» Omaha Burke junior guard Xavier Watts

24.0 ppg, 60.9% FG (63.6% 3FG), 65.0% FT, 6.0 rpg (0.5 orpg), 1.5 apg, 1.0 tog, 1.5 spg

Hepburn and Arop are co-MVPs for my money. Even with his jumper not falling, Hepburn found a way to control every game with his defense, passing and timely buckets. As for Arop, he had 49 points, 32 rebounds and seven blocks in the semifinals and finals alone in addition to the above mentioned defense against Tonje. 

I put together some highlgihts from throughout the tournament for Arop and Hepburn. 

Wur, the 6-foot-8 match-up nightmare, led the Titans to the semifinals with three double-doubles and made a defense defensively at the rim all tournament. Even with the tough last game, Tonje still had a great tournament and took the Eagles to the semis. 

Watts, the 2020 Nebraska football target, got off to a rough start this season while transitioning from a state title run on the gridiron back to the basketball court, but he broke out in a big way in the Metro Tournament. Watts scored 24 points on 12 field goal attempts (4-of-6 from 3) in the first round, leading the 14th-seeded Bulldogs to the only upset win of the first round over No. 3 seed Omaha Westside.

Second Team

» Omaha Westside senior forward Chase Thompson

34.0 ppg, 63.6% FG (53.8% 3FG), 86.4% FT, 5.5 rpg (3.0 orpg), 1.0 apg, 2.5 tpg

» Omaha South junior guard Jay Saunders

20.5 ppg, 55.6% FG (62.5% 3FG), 100.0% FT, 5.5 rpg (3.0 orpg), 3.5 apg, 1.5 tpg, 2.5 spg, 1.0 bpg

» Omaha Central junior guard Trelly Wrightsell

19.5 ppg, 45.8% FG (50.0% 3FG), 81.8% FT, 6.0 rpg (1.5 orpg), 3.0 apg, 1.0 tpg, 3.0 spg

» Will Grixby

17.5 ppg, 53.8% FG (50.0% 3FG), 60.0% FT, 3.0 rpg (1.0 orpg), 1.0 tpg, 2.5 spg

» Millard Hunter Sallis

16.5 ppg, 60.0% FG (66.7% 3FG), 87.5% FT, 3.0 rpg (1.5 orpg), 4.0 apg, 2.5 tpg, 1.0 spg

The Warriors may have dropped their first-round game, but they bounced back with a big win in the consolation round against Bellevue East and Thompson dropped 34 points in both games. The senior forward has had a terrific start to the season and picked up a Wayne State offer on Wednesday. He’s a beast in the post and when he’s hitting free throws and 3s, look out.

Omaha South gave Creighton Prep a run of its money in the quarterfinals and Saunders was a big part of that, scoring 26 points and hitting some big shots late to keep the Packers alive. Wrightsell played for the first time since the season-opener and dropped 28 points and seven triples against Millard North in the quarterfinals. He led the Eagles with 11 points against Prep. Senior point guard Will Grixby erupted for a career-high 25 points in the quarterfinals against Bellevue West, giving the T-Birds fits with his speed and ability to get to the rim and finish.

Millard North ran into a buzzsaw in Central, but 2021 Nebraska target Hunter Sallis played well. He had 16 points five rebounds and five assists against the Eagles after typing for the team lead with 17 in the first round against Omaha North.

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